Knowing their season is about to end without a trip to the playoffs, it would be easy to think that the Wheeling Nailers had nothing to play for on Friday night at WesBanco Arena, but you couldn’t tell that by watching the game. They did indeed have something to play for, the fans, on fan appreciation night, and gave the stellar crowd of 4,314 Wheeling faithful a happy send off, blowing out the Kalamazoo Wings 7-2.
“We got after them early, we hit them, we forechecked,” Nailers coach Jeff Christian said. “It was good for our fans, it was a great crowd.
“It was probably one of our top five crowds of the year. I wish we had that crowd all year, the crowd was alive it really helped us. That was a legit big crowd for us. The guys can feel it.
“It was a good end to kind of a rough season.”
The rookies right out of college stole the show, as R. P. I. product Riley Bourbonnais netted a hat trick – including the eventual game winner – for his third, fourth, and fifth goals with the team in his short span, and Robert Morris product Daniel Leavens netted his fifth goal of his short time in Wheeling, and picked up three assists for a four point night.
“That’s the future (of Nailers hockey) for sure,” Christian said of the performance of the young guys. “(Bourbonnais) has done a good job since he’s come in, (Leavens) has done a good job, he’s really got a lot of offensive upside.”
A couple of guys who’ve been around also had big nights, as Christian Hilbrich and Garrett Meurs each picked up a goal and two assists.
“We talked about it before the game, we wanted to end on a high note regardless of what comes after the season,” Hilbrich said. “To finish like this in front of the home crowd kind of solidifies that we know we have a tight group of guys that are willing to battle it out to the end and give the fans a show.”
Sean Maguire turned in a solid 36 save performance to likely end his rookie season, unless he sees game action in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton where he and Cody Wydo (assist) were both headed after the game.
The Nailers got rolling right off the hop as Hilbrich cranked home a one-timer off a Leavens feed for a quick 1-0 lead 42 seconds in, and then 4:04 in Bourbonnais banked in a Tyler Currier rebound from his backhand and made it 2-0.
Kalamazoo didn’t go away that easy, as Peter Schneider (goal, assist) made it 2-1 just past the halfway mark of the opening period, and that was the score after one.
Kale Kerbashian, who has been a point producing machine for Wheeling since being acquired at the deadline, fed Bourbonnais with a centering feed 2:41 into the second period and he buried it to regain the two goal lead, but Kalamazoo was still refusing to go away as Lane Scheidl tipped a shot from still beloved former Nailer Kyle Bushee to make it a 3-2 game just under five minutes later.
It was all Nailers from there.
Just three ticks of the clock past the halfway mark of the game, Hilbrich spun an impressive pass to Leavens and he knocked it in on the backdoor for a 4-2 lead, then late in the frame Meurs flew down the right side of the ice and buried an unassisted breakaway goal, his 25th of the season, to make it 5-2 after two.
4:10 into the third ECHL All-Rookie team member Kevin Schulze blasted his 13th of the season and 59th point off the bar and in over the shoulder of Kalamazoo starter Nic Riopel (27 saves) to make it 6-2.
Then on a late power play, Bourbonnais got his chance for the hat trick and he didn’t miss, giving the Nailers the 7-2 victory.
“It’s awesome,” Bourbonnais said of the hat trick. “When you get to play with great players like we have on this team it’s a fun experience.
“I was just praying that (the third one) would go in (when he let the shot go). They gave me a chance to get the hat trick at the end of the game.”
Wheeling concludes the season tonight in Kalamazoo. Thank you for reading along all season!